Cover-up denied over Iraq arms papers

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Allegations that the Government deliberately suppressed documents that would have cleared four businessmen accused in an arms-for-Iraq trial were denied in the Court of Appeal yesterday.

Crown counsel Edmund Lawson, QC, conceded that the documents showed there were suspicions and even beliefs within government departments during the late 1980s that Jordan was being used as a conduit for arms exports to Baghdad.

Mr Lawson all but admitted he faced an uphill struggle persuading three Appeal Court judges that the decision had had no effect on the way the men pleaded or the outcome of the trial. But he said it was important "not to lose sight of what the appellants were doing, that they were involved in a smuggling operation".

The four businessmen, two of whom worked for the Reading-based arms company Ordtech, were convicted of illegally exporting a fuse assembly line to Iraq via Jordan. They argue they were unable to mount a proper defence because the prosecution withheld documents, recently disclosed, which they say would have helped them in the original trial.

The appellants say the documents show that at the time they were involved in shipping the assembly line to Iraq via Jordan, the Government was turning a blind eye to arms exports to Jordan.

It emerged in court that during a conversation in chambers during the original trial the prosecution counsel, Andrew Collins, admitted: "It must have been relatively clear that Jordan did not have an army which would have been capable of using the fuses to the extent that they were to be produced, and it was known of course, or should have been known that one of the ways in which the material was getting to Iraq was via Jordan." The appellants also argue that one of their number, Paul Grecian, was informing the security services about his and the company's activities in Iraq.

Mr Lawson said that for the appellant's case to work they needed to show that there "was more than a blind eye being turned by the executive". There was nothing in the disclosed documents to show that Mr Grecian told the security services "what he was actually doing" in respect to his business dealings in Iraq.

The court heard extracts from a number of documents which detail regular meetings which Mr Grecian had with the security services at which he informed them of the Iraqi effort to build a "supergun" and about other sensitive projects.

It was mentioned that at the original trial, Mr Grecian was warned by his own counsel following discussions with the prosecution that if he did not plead guilty he could not be protected from reprisals from either the Iraqis, or a terrorist organisation on the UK mainland on whom he had informed.

At one point Lord Taylor, the Chief Justice, interrupted Mr Lawson, who argued the documents would have proved to be of no benefit to Mr Grecian by saying: "At the very least it would have been fruitful for the defence to say to the jury; why would Mr Grecian be playing with fire if he had not felt the authorities were prepared to turn a blind eye to his activities?"

Mr Lawson said his predecessor Andrew Collins, now a High Court judge, had decided not to release any documents to the defence after reading documents prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry and taking advice from a Customs and Excise official.

Lord Taylor, Mr Justice Macpherson and Mr Justice Maurice Kay are now considering their verdict.